Land of Our Fathers depicts the fate of six Welsh miners trapped underground after their pit collapses in 1979. Their banter and teasing turns darker as they await rescue while their food and water runs out, the desperate situation taking some relationships to breaking point, while creating new bonds in others.
One of the strongest aspects of the production is the detailed design: a black coalface lit with flickering electric lights practically lets you smell the coal. Whether intentionally or not, the temperatures inside the theatre helped to add to the claustrophobia and bleakness of the setting, helping the actors break a very real sweat during their more heated exchanges. The play certainly contains a good number of these, many peppered with realistic swearing. The smoke, subtle lights, Welsh hymns and hints of noticeably modern, artificial soundscaping all meld together, leaving the most important thing: atmosphere.
The six actors are doubtless the central attraction of the production, bringing energy and detail to their performances all the way until the final curtain. As we approach the end, it is perhaps difficult to conceive that men trapped without food underground for so many days can still have the energy to bristle and rant with quite so much force, but until then bristling and ranting is delivered with the right amalgam of humour and fury.
Clive Merrison brings a loveable, sardonic fragility to the foul-mouthed Bomber, Patrick Brennan is a charismatic, paternal Chopper whose crisis of leadership, when the starved and desperate men pin him with the blame for their predicament, is a powerful moment. Kyle Rees wrings the physical comedy out of the character of Curly. The performances don’t leave me completely convinced that these men inhabit the same town and meet every working day – the camaraderie isn’t quite there. They remain a team of separately, though masterfully, sketched individuals: the idea that Curly and Chewy are brothers only ever emerges from dialogue, and each time it does it is a little surprising.
I came to the play expecting a dark comedy with a clear position on the recent decades of British history; the fate of mining and heavy industry, trade unions and communities in industrial areas. I’m not disappointed that Chris Urch has taken another direction, focusing his characters on their present situation, their own lives and fate rather than on creating a meticulous treatise. Perhaps there isn’t anything new to say about the Thatcher era from our point in history. If anything, Margaret Thatcher’s funeral showed that Britain is still deeply divided about the legacy of the processes she began. Urch appears pragmatic: mining may have been the backbone of communities for generations, but it can be pretty miserable work.
What Urch does well is squeezing humour out of tiny details like an argument about a defunct brand of chocolate biscuit. He also writes dialogue for a small group of actors that trips along lightly, like genuine banter, keeping my attention throughout the play. But maybe there is too much focus on the small stuff (the artistic merits of musicals, drinking pee), not enough on building character relationships that have the quirks and complexities of life. While there are moments of darker humour, they’re not as successful as the surreal moments like the impromptu breakout of My Favourite Things.
Perhaps there is too much banter. Leaving the theatre I wonder if, in the constant hubbub, I’ve been enticed to consider even one Big Idea over the past two hours. Whether it was drowned out among the play’s endless tiny events or if it was never there in the first place, I really don’t recall one. Still the performance is one well worth seeing: the ensemble cast and production values make it a very decent package.